Streep-Trump debate a too-familiar controversy on disability
After legendary actress Meryl Streep focused her criticism of Donald Trump on his mocking of Serge Kovaleski (a well-respected New York Times reporter who has a physical disability) — calling it the 2016 “performance” that broke her heart — an all-too-familiar debate followed.
Opponents of Trump wondered, yet again, how a man whose public actions were so grotesque could be elected. Defenders shared videos of Trump making mock-spastic motions when taunting other, non-disabled, people, and claiming this was somehow a defense of his actions. As usual, this conversation failed to take the next step.
As the father of a boy with Down syndrome and a journalist devoted to covering the struggle for disability rights, I have two requests. Of those on the left, I ask: Instead of focusing on Trump’s insults, let your horror at his bullying motivate you to learn more about the needs of and threats to disabled Americans, and organize around those issues. Better yet, lend support to disabled leaders already engaged in the struggle. Of those on the right, I ask: If you really believe that Trump is not an ableist bully, then prove it by doing the same thing.
Although Streep’s critics engaged in the ritual of pretending that art is apolitical and Streep was out of line, her remarks against Trump were really pretty mild, making three key points over about six minutes: Actors come from all around the world, so protect immigration rights and don’t demonize foreigners. Freedom of the press is important. And Trump’s bullying and mockery should be replaced by empathy.
As a reminder, Trump, back in 2015, falsely claimed that Kovaleski had changed a story about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. As Trump lied, he made fake spastic movements and pretended to have a disabled arm. Streep, onstage, recalled this moment and lamented that “The person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” Trump, on Twitter, denigrated Streep’s acting career and once again claimed he hadn’t mocked Kovaleski’s disability, but characterized him as “groveling” and once again lied about whether Kovaleski had changed his story. Neither side acknowledged Kovaleski’s agency or his voice in any of this.
My requests of those on both sides — positive and negative — shouldn’t obscure the fact that the bullying conduct itself does matter. Trump has used physical and emotional differences as a tool in his quest for dominance, relying, like a cut-rate insult-comic, on superficial deviations from his perceptions of the norm as a way to attack people. He has routinely used disability in particular as a rhetorical weapon, with both physical mimicry and words like “retard” permeating his actions. The idea that he wasn’t trying to humiliate Kovaleski because he sometimes pretends to be disabled when mocking other people — Ted Cruz for example — is not credible. It’s not a coincidence that he chose that particular weapon when targeting Kovaleski in front of the crowd.
Unfortunately, we seem to get stuck at the bullying, never engaging the underlying issues faced by disabled Americans today. As I just wrote about for CNN last week, disabled Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than non-disabled individuals. Last year, I co-wrote a study for the Ruderman Foundation that found a third to a half of all people killed by police were disabled. As the Harriet Tubman Collective, a group of disabled activists of color, pointed out in its powerful document, “Disability Solidarity,” neither well-funded disability organizations, prominent non-disability-related civil rights organizations, nor politicians from either side of the aisle are particularly focused on this ongoing violence.
Meanwhile, as Rebecca Vallas writes for the Center for American Progress, disability also remains a cause and consequence of poverty. Disabled people are much more likely to be poor. Poor people are much more likely to be disabled. In 2015, the unemployment rate for disabled Americans was 10.5%, versus 5.1 for those without disabilities. Without work, one has to rely on benefits, but if one starts to make money, it’s easy to lose benefits. This is known as the poverty trap.
Worst of all, those benefits now seem to be threatened by the incoming Trump administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress. It’s hard to tell beneath the political bluster whether people with pre-existing conditions — i.e. every single disabled person in America — will be able to keep their health care once Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are done with Obamacare. Moreover, wonky phrases like “block grants” and “per capita caps,” changes that Ryan would like to see made to Medicaid, specifically threaten access to essential services and care needs for the most vulnerable disabled Americans.
So let’s make the Golden Globes the last time we fixate on Trump’s on-stage conduct for its own sake. People with disabilities are not just objects to be pitied, but people fighting, every day, to create just society. Join the struggle.
Right wing or left wing, you should want to know how Sen. Jeff Sessions, if confirmed as attorney general, will defend disabled Americans from violence. Tom Price, the nominee for Health and Human Services, is a big fan of block grants. How will disabled Americans — and there are lots of disabled Americans who vote Republican — fare if he gets his way? These are just two of the many issues with which we should be engaging.
Whether you are angry about Trump’s ableism, or if you think Trump wasn’t ableist at all, get involved. Support your local disability protection and advocacy organization or disability law center. Find disabled people working on these issues and share their work, give them money, sign up for their causes.
As for Serge Kovaleski? He’s a great reporter and we do him no favors by repeatedly returning to Trump’s foul behavior. He’s just published a great piece about the enduring racism of the far right despite their attempts to rebrand their white supremacy. Instead of sharing that dreadful video, go read his work.